pages More Than a False Start

by Sloane Miller

Published in Issue No. 15 ~ August, 1998

He takes me by the arm like a child out of fire-drill formation and kisses me.

Another student walks in.

“I forgot my lucky pen,” she tells the emptied room.

With his back to us, he packs his briefcase.

“We’ll go over that material another time,” he says.

I leave with the lucky-pen woman. She wants to know what I think of his class.

I noticed it takes him practically the entire lecture to get through two sleeves, one at a time. He unbuttons one button at the edge of his cuff and a second securing button further down the cuff to make the first tuck. He continues talking, continues gesticulating using that hand. Then two quick rolls, securing his sleeve part of the way up his arm. He looks around the room. He looks at me. He looks at his book. He looks at the ceiling. He remembers how he practiced it the night before, remembers the point he wanted to make, remembers how to guide us to come to the point after he comes to it. He touches the shoulder of the woman sitting below him. He asks the room a question and answers before they answer. He looks up. He looks at me. He looks away. He begins with the other sleeve.

I think this is his seduction.

He has short hair. Once, I dreamt he had long hair and was with another woman. We were all at his mother’s house by the ocean.

His mother pulled me aside and said: “I wish he was with you, dear.”

When the other woman went for a swim, he approached me to caress my face.

Later, he sat at the kitchen table and watched three women cross each other to prepare supper.

The Mid-East was in the news again and I thought of that picture of him and Anwar Sadat. He has other pictures in his office: shaking hands with George Bush in a blue room, holding a rifle in the desert. But it is him with brown hair and a brown mustache not yet grey, the smallness of the scene, and his forced smile that I focus on. They wear dark suits and hold hands stiffly. His body is twisted to face the camera; Sadat looks healthy and tanned. The sun is high overhead, casting no shadows.

I daydreamed that he has been traveling by foot, by horse, by camel, but not by donkey. He is wrapped in a veil saturated by desert dust. The veil covers all of him but his eyes like a woman in purdah. He has to create a language built on labored winks and stares the depth of the Dead Sea. (Years from now, if he saw me on the street, in a short skirt without stockings, would he recognize the scar on my left thigh, another tight-lipped mouth he had longed for; or would he just make a mental note of a young woman navigating a path through the crowd, her purse across her chest like armor, her eyes battering rams?)

“I am a genius,” he says, “I am a genius and you are not.”

I wonder how long it will take him, assaulted by my silence, to launch his third attack. I think to time him, but he doesn’t wait, not even sixty seconds.

“I know more history, more literature, more science, and more math than you, I know more of the world, have seen more, tasted more, experienced more, I am better than you, just–better.”

If I were writing a story about him it might start like this:

The Professor sits in his dark office facing an open window. There are no sounds coming from the street. He touches a crack in a plastic framed picture: it is at least 20 years old. He feels nostalgic for that time in his life, for the young man in that picture. Last week, one of his students noticed the crack.

“The frame store is on my way home,” she offered.

He thinks of this young woman and his eyes drift back to the picture, to his brown hair, and to the new mustache that he thought made him look important. In the picture, he shakes hands with Anwar Sadat, who would be dead within the year.

Intersecting lives, he thinks, like how his unmarried assistant’s shoulders drooped as she made copies, or how his sister’s voice cracked with worry over the telephone, or how this young woman, what is her name, wants to make herself useful to him?

But stories like this rarely end. Rather, they end as they begin: walking through the park, watching trees made animate by wind, thinking of those who pass through one’s life. I want to tell you this story and then I want you to help me figure out how not to do this again.

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Sloane Abigail Miller lives in New York City.